The gym’s a place to bond and sweat out daily frustrations, but it’s also a place to feel inadequate.
I like gyms. I always have. The lights, the music, the clanking weights, the parade of spandex, the climate-controlled air. My exercise habits have occasionally tipped in an obsessive direction, but for the most part, exercise has helped me manage stress in work, life, and relationships in a tangible way. You can’t be angry if you’re exhausted; you can’t be too sad to sleep if your body is demanding rest. Plus, as everyone knows, it’s good for your health, that little word with which the entire world is obsessed.
Gyms are also social—I’ve made good friends in every city where I’ve lived as a result of group aerobics, yoga, and spinning. If you sweat with someone or shout at them (athletic speak for “encourage”) while they suffer through a set of push-ups, you feel bonded. Friends you have coffee with don’t have to see you tremble through a final bicep curl or pant around a track. A non workout relationship can feel a bit disembodied compared to a “gym relationship” in which your body is right up in the other person’s business. Bodies are everything. I like this idea; I’m constantly telling my writing students that our emotions are not created in our brains, they’re created in our bodies and then our brains attempt to understand them. I have no idea if this is scientifically accurate but I think it helps writers to think this way: that panic, sadness, love, desire, euphoria all manifest with and inside the body.
In gym culture, that’s also part of the problem. I recently visited my old gym in Los Angeles, a multi-level, light-filled place that I happily scooted to every day when I lived in Santa Monica, just to see what awesome, fun challenge might be offered. Want to slam heavy ropes on the floor? Jump around on trampolines? Dance? Do pseudo-ballet movements with big weighted balls? This place was for you. Fun, creative, energetic, and with the best fitness instructors in the world. My friend Amy’s spin classes were sweat-therapy sessions. In the class, it was like being part of a team. I always wanted to do team sports but never could, so I’ve always loved the group energy. But there’s an underside to that group energy as well.
It’s called the comparison game, and we all know what it is, what the rules are, what the requirements are, and how we fall short in one area or another. It’s unspoken, but it’s so present that when I returned to my home gym it almost knocked me out of the room. Where I live, very few of the city’s residents are trying to be actors. Not so in Los Angeles, and because the entertainment industry is so visual, I’d forgotten how fitness can be a competitive sport. Not the sport part, but how you look while you do the sport part. Women talk about this more than men, but it exists for men as well. Hang around a weight room long enough and you will understand that there is a “biggest, strongest man,” just as there’s a “prettiest, skinniest woman.” Ugh.
In a recent attempt to stop the lifelong comparison game that has made me miserable, in an earnest desire to stop creating my own suffering and actually concentrate on being happy and using my creative energy in fulfilling ways that mean something, I’ve tried to get to the bottom of that feeling I experience sometimes at the gym, usually just before the class starts, after which I’m so busy trying not to fall over that I stop thinking about how my mind feels and focus only on staying upright. The feeling is a close cousin of shame, that hollow-stomach and hot throat feeling, but it’s also more than that. It’s self-consciousness, of course, which is a fancy way of saying helplessness+fear. Helpless in the sense that I could exercise until I dropped dead and I’d still drop dead with only one complete leg and another that’s worth about $50,000 but is useless to anyone else.
Fear of getting older, being invisible, losing control of the body, all of it. Of having pale skin or green eyes. Of being a mother who lost a child, a writer who is stuck in the middle of a novel. Of never having another child. Of losing everyone I love. Of not being a super famous writer who just writes for a living. At the bottom of these fears, this old self-loathing message that used to motivate me but now just haunts me, a message I’ve often thought might be inside many thought bubbles of the people in a gym if such things were made visible: You’ll never be good enough. All this, yes, at the gym, while we do a warm-up to hip-hop music.
There’s no place to go after the above statement. It’s mental darkness, pure and simple, not to mention a massive waste of time. There’s no winning this game of “who is best,” but it’s difficult to know how to stop playing it or be conscious of it, which is a way of playing the game, however subtly. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m above it,” but I always find those absolutes to be false. No person is above their emotions, not really, so there has to be another way to put a stop to this business.
I think it comes back to the imagined thought bubble. Looking around a gym at rooms full of people, thinking they are maybe just as self-conscious and in need of support and encouragement as I am. It doesn’t mean making best buds at the gym, it just means an acknowledgment—like that OM you do at the beginning and ending of a yoga class—that you see the other people groaning and working around you. That you know, as they know, that life is very often a struggle, and maybe the treadmill will help for 30 minutes and maybe it will not.
What I often imagine scribbling in those thought bubbles: You are human. You are enough. While I’m at it I try to scribble it into my own.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.